If Elvis Presley rests in peace, Albert Goldman gets no credit. He is the controversial author of Elvis, the iconoclastic best-seller that strips away the myths and reveals shocking details of life in the Heartbreak Hotel called Graceland, Presley’s estate in Memphis. The 598-page book has enraged Elvis devotees and even some reviewers. “The torrents of hate that drive this book are unrelieved,” wrote rock critic Greil Marcus. The New Yorker called it “an ugly biography.” Goldman, who taught English at Columbia and other New York City colleges for more than two decades, is now a well-credentialed celebrity biographer. His 1974 biography of Lenny Bruce was a best-seller and he has also written books on disco, carnival time in Rio and marijuana. Goldman’s tale-tattling on Elvis has paid well: He sold paperback rights for $1 million and additional subsidiary rights for about half that much. He is negotiating a $1 million contract now to take on another deceased (and defenseless) rock giant, John Lennon. Goldman, 54, spoke to PEOPLE writer Carl Arrington:
What’s the one thing that surprised you most about Elvis?
The secret of Elvis turned out to be that he was a profoundly divided personality. There were two sides of him constantly oscillating. In one persona he was dressed in white, a messiah and a yogi who read spiritual books. In the other he dressed in black, was like Al Capone, had his Memphis Mafia, always packed heat [guns] and talked in very vulgar, obscene language.
What caused the personality split?
First, he had a twin brother who died at birth and who represented his other, “good” self. Later there were the conflicts of his adolescence where a swaggering macho attitude came out of his momma’s boy personality. It showed most dramatically after his mother’s death in 1958. She represented security to him, and when that was gone it plunged him into chronic paranoia. He gathered his flunkies and disappeared into Graceland to live an existence of collective psychosis.
Isn’t it simpler to say that he was just a mixed-up Southern kid?
Elvis wasn’t in spirit a Southerner. He was ashamed of his origins. To him the dirtiest word in his mouth was “redneck.” He hated rock ‘n’ roll, and as he got older he wanted to develop what he called a “California accent.”
Hated rock ‘n’ roll? Are you serious?
Sure. It was just a vehicle he adopted to make himself famous. If the important music of the day had been the tango, he would have tangoed. He didn’t just want to be a singer, he wanted to be a big movie star like Rudolph Valentino.
Then why was Elvis so popular?
Elvis wasn’t a great singer. He was a guy who had a fantastic talent for projecting an enduring image the public adored. I remember when I saw him perform in Las Vegas in 1970. The women were just eating him up with their eyes. The more uncontrollable ones were hurling themselves at the stage like salmon going up the falls to mate.
What was wrong with his image?
When you pick up a rock dozens of times and find something rotten and decaying underneath each time, you begin to get the idea. I found Elvis to be an outrageous, repulsive character. He seemed to be a dreadful sort of person doing wrong things who had everybody so under control that they would never talk back to him. Behind his theatrical image of love and happiness was a black hole of the soul where all the forces were negative. There was no genuine core to his personality. It was all down to drugs and comic-book macho. I’ve never seen such an inversion between the public image and the private persona. It was like the Wizard of Oz; you go behind the screen and there’s nothing.
Isn’t there anything good you can say about Elvis?
He was at his best onstage. Movies froze him, but onstage he had total confidence. That’s a pure showbiz talent that has nothing to do with music.
Aren’t you really preaching the gospel according to Albert Goldman?
I suppose I preached a little where Elvis epitomized trends in the culture that I found reprehensible. I rejected his goal of endlessly prolonged adolescence coupled with his extreme narcissism. It seems to me getting older means getting wiser, stronger and better in every sense. In Elvis, getting older was only a process of gradual loss, decay, attrition, failure, crap-out.
What was the effect of marriage and fatherhood on Elvis?
I don’t think marriage affected his sexual tastes much because he married Priscilla more out of duty than anything else. Being a father briefly awed Elvis, but after a while Lisa Marie became just another toy: One minute he would spoil her and the next he would banish her to someplace and ignore her for weeks.
Why did Elvis start taking drugs?
It began early when he had to drive all night to gigs and then hit the stage like a machine gun. His behavior was typical of a speed freak: twitching legs, constantly tapping fingers, slurred speech. But like all junkies, Elvis was commiting suicide on the installment plan. Yet at the same time he was showing that he was superhuman by taking these huge loads of drugs that would kill any normal person. Finally one night he took a large dose and there just wasn’t anybody around to save him.
What reaction has there been to your Elvis book from his fans?
I still get about five letters a day. They all start out saying, “I’ve never read your book, but it is the worst piece of trash ever written.”
Why the extreme reaction?
It’s as if I violated a taboo. If you say that Elvis was depraved and depressed, you’re defiling the sacred image. It’s sacrilege.
What about reviewers who accuse you of being a New York intellectual who doesn’t understand the Southern rock tradition?
My book offended two very vocal power blocks: the rock establishment and the Southern literati. Great power and success have not made rock critics confident, but rather highly intolerant—sort of hip bigots. Instead of refuting what I say, they choose to patronize me as just another arrogant Yankee from New York. Well, I grew up listening to hillbilly music in Mount Lebanon, Pa., about an hour from where Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, claims he was raised.
What kind of obstacles did you run into doing the book?
It was a biographer’s nightmare. First, all of the principal sources were gone. The mother was dead, the father soon died, Colonel Parker wasn’t going to talk and Priscilla has never been willing to discuss her relationship with Elvis. All but one of the Memphis Mafia talked, but they never heard a word about business and—let’s face it—they weren’t the brightest guys who ever lived. There were times I was ready to quit because I couldn’t see how to get through a wall of 25 years of cover-up and concealment.
So what did you do for sources?
I did like the police do with a tough case. I just went around, collected little bits of information and put them up on the board like a big jigsaw puzzle. After a while you begin to see patterns, asking better questions and digging in the right places.
You spent years investigating the Latin-American drug trade for an earlier book. Did the experience give you any insight for Elvis?
Yes, it deepened my understanding of his drug problem enormously. I got into the drug underground when I was about 49 and started experimenting. I smoked lots of grass. I tried cocaine. I tried snorting heroin. First I began to see the incredible euphoria you could get behind drugs. No wonder people take them. I also began to see their enormous destructive power. I am frankly ashamed now that I wrote a lot of glamorizing-drugs crap about Lenny Bruce because I see that what really happens is that the people gradually die, that’s all.
What ultimately killed Elvis?
He died of an excess of himself. He was self-destructive to begin with, but fame certainly accelerated the process and provided devices for offing himself.
What fate awaits your next subject, John Lennon?
John was the total reverse of Elvis in every respect. He was a mature man who was authentically creative instead of just derivative. He took enormous risks with his popularity, his money and his personal life. He also had drugs, but saw beyond them. He was a smart guy too. A real instinctive intellectual.
Why didn’t Lennon self-destruct?
He was a totally contemporary experimental, pragmatic human being who was totally engaged with that new world out there. When the women’s rights thing came along he said, “Okay, let’s do it,” and he became a housewife. I admired his audacity. On the other hand, at the beginning of the Elvis book I had a whole prospectus of what the biography would be and I was 100 percent wrong. I didn’t have the facts.
Doesn’t it give you some pangs of conscience to have debunked one of our major cultural heroes?
Blowing people like Elvis up into sacred beings and forming mass cults around them is really nutty and ultimately dangerous. It’s like putting out your eyes. Elvis is just an American pop fantasy. He didn’t belong to the real world.